Whale Shark Interaction in Donsol

by Poi on April 10, 2012

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The first stop of our ‘two weeks isn’t long enough’ tour of the Philippines was Donsol, Legazpi.  It doesn’t really have a lot going on other than it’s main tourist attraction, whale shark interactions.  We like all other tourists had arrived for exactly that.

Donsol is a small place with a few guesthouses in the downtown area but most accommodation options are in the form of beach resorts a few minutes away, much closer to the tourist centre where the action is.  We chose to stay in the town where as you might have guessed it’s much cheaper also quite fun wandering round while getting stared at and saying hello back to the hundreds of shouting school kids.

stubby san miguel bottle

Helping the evenings pass

We arranged to stay three nights in Donsol and the morning after arriving got straight on with what we had come to do.

After the 40 pence each journey to the tourist centre we signed up to be placed in a group, watched an instructional video and got kitted up with masks and fins ready to go and find some whale sharks.

Moments later we were being led to a boat by our guide ‘Bobby’ and some other tourists.  It was explained to us early on that we would have to break some (most) of the rules we had seen in the video only moments before.

The main one being ”only one boat per whale shark”.  Bobby explained that when the video was made there were over seventy whale sharks coming to Donsol during peak times. However, since tourism has become bigger numbers have been dropping every year as the sharks avoid the area.

Apparently this year there were only seven.

With more tourists and less whale sharks it would be impossible to follow the one boat rule as tourists would never see anything and stop coming.

Obviously this made us both feel terrible and pretty bad about being out on the water and basically hunting for one of the seven.  The procedure seemed pretty clear, head to where the rest of the boats are because they must be there for a reason.

Sure enough that plan worked and we were soon being told to jump in the water. Almost immediately Bobby shouted at me to look straight down and although visibility wasn’t great I saw something coming towards me a few meters below.  You hear whale sharks are big but it’s hard to imagine just how big until they are right there in front of you.

Whale Shark Interaction - Donsol, Philippines

I gave up trying to take pictures very quickly – This is as good as it gets.

I stayed on the spot floating just watching while it passed underneath me before turning to start swimming with it as it had almost passed.  Unfortunately that isn’t easy when five other boats have just dropped tourists into the water in front of you to do the same.  Within seconds I had been consumed by a crowd of people, unable to move and very frustrated.

All I could do was climb back in the boat and wait for another opportunity.  We seemed to get lucky with our boat crew who repeatedly dropped us in great positions away from the crowds.  Both Kirsty and I were able to enjoy swimming along with a whale shark peacefully for a few minutes on a number of occasions and it was very special experience.

The fact is though it’s hard work and many times we were left floating around frustrated in the water.  I was being pushed by people, had fins kicking me in the face and getting blocked off by non-swimmers huddled together in a big balls of life jackets.  What are you doing in the water? If you can’t swim? you’re not going to see anything!!

Whale Sharks Donsol, Philippines

A small group compared to the rest.

On the whole it was a great experience but I’m left with mixed emotions.  On one hand I’m glad I got the chance to see them so easily,  Donsol practically guarantees seeing whale sharks.  This may not be the case in a year or two though and that’s why on the other hand I feel bad about being involved in the tourism that’s forcing them away.

Next time I would rather just take my chances trying to see them on a dive somewhere.  It may be nothing like as guaranteed but it would be a much better experience for the animal and myself.

And that’s exactly what I hoped to do the next day when I went out again with Bobby, this time with his dive shop.

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Andi of My Beautiful Adventures April 11, 2012 at 4:48 pm

Wow, this is SUCH a huge dream of mine. Maybe there is a better place in the world to try and swim with them so that you don’t have SO many tourists around you?

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Poi Deeble-Rogers April 16, 2012 at 12:36 pm

There are a few places around the world where it’s possible but unless you have a lot of time it’s hard to go somewhere where sightings are common and there aren’t lots of tourists :(

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Globetrottergirls April 11, 2012 at 4:59 pm

It’s a dream of us to swim with whale shark, and we were actually hoping to do it one day in Donsol, after hearing how crowded the other famous whale shark spot, Holbox, Mexico, has become. But your post leaves us with mixed emotions too – not sure if we should do it after all if there are so many tourists and the whale sharks are escaping…

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Poi Deeble-Rogers April 16, 2012 at 12:37 pm

It was a great experience and if you’re close by I would recommend but it’s not quite the peaceful experience we were hoping for.

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Monica April 11, 2012 at 8:32 pm

I skipped the chance to see whale sharks while I was in Australia. I’d watched the tourist boats heading out with flocks of people bundled up with life jackets and the thought of everyone jumping in on the whale shark was horrible. I always kind of regretted not seeing them but after readiing this I’m glad I didn’t do it.

Coming across a shark or manta ray while scuba diving is the best feeling ever so it’s much nicer to take the chance and hope for a lucky encounter :)

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Poi Deeble-Rogers April 16, 2012 at 12:39 pm

The crowds definitely destroy the moment. Like you say, lots os scuba diving is the answer and hoping to get lucky.

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Micamyx|Senyorita April 11, 2012 at 8:36 pm

I am from the Philippines, but I haven’t been to Dasol. I think right now, Oslob in Cebu is popular for the sudden emersion of whale sharks in the area. Some friends of mine really enjoyed their stay there :)

Stil in the Philippines? I’ll be in Boracay tomorrow :)

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Socs April 15, 2012 at 10:08 am

Hi, whale shark watching in Oslob is even more unsustainable because fishermen feed the whale sharks there. This has caused the giant fish to become dependent on the fishermen and some of them get wounded rocking the boats to urge the fishermen to throw more krill into the waters. Tourists get too close to the whale sharks and actually touch them, which again, isn’t the sustainable way to view them.

The interaction in Donsol is still the best way to view them in the country, but like what is said in the blog post, it’s also become stressful for the whale sharks.

It’s DONSOL, by the way :) Enjoy your Boracay trip.

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Poi Deeble-Rogers April 16, 2012 at 12:42 pm

Hey, thanks for commenting and letting us know whats going on.

Poi

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Amanda April 13, 2012 at 8:15 am

I’d really love to do this, too, but I hate the idea of dozens of tourists being dumped into the water in the path of a whale shark. The poor fish! No wonder they’ve begun avoiding the area…

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Poi Deeble-Rogers April 16, 2012 at 12:44 pm

I remember thinking why would any animal return to an area where they are subjected to this whilst we were there.

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ciaRaysabeL (@cosmicais) April 13, 2012 at 7:46 pm

I was in Donsol doing the exact same thing (plus firefly tour) a few years back. It was already a bit crowded then but nothing compared to now. What a pity. A lot of families depend on tourism. I hope something will be done about it soon.

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Poi Deeble-Rogers April 16, 2012 at 12:45 pm

That is the problem they are facing. The guides seem to genuinely care about the whale sharks but if they don’t break the rules, people don’t see sharks and people stop coming.

It’s a tough situation they are stuck in.

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Claire April 14, 2012 at 1:44 am

I would love to swim with whale sharks! How cool. It’s unfortunate that it was so crowded in the water though. Great photo of the shark, by the way… despite the poor visibility, it still shows a glimpse of how big they truly are.

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Poi Deeble-Rogers April 16, 2012 at 12:48 pm

Thanks! Taking photo’s was so hard that day. With people kicking me and blocking me off it just became too much and I left the camera in the boat.

It was hard enough trying to keep up with the shark without it!

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Ryan McCoy April 14, 2012 at 5:35 am

Whale Sharks are some of the most intriguing creatures on the planet. I do not fault you for diving with them, it is a tough opportunity to pass up.

It is important to take care not to jump to conclusions on issues like this. While shifting migratory patterns as a result of tourism is concerning…that does not mean tourists are having a direct negative impact. More research on the issue is needed to make a definitive claim.

Anyways, I look forward to reading more of this blog!

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Poi Deeble-Rogers April 16, 2012 at 12:51 pm

It’s maybe not all to do with the effects of tourism but the numbers of sharks dropping so quickly as tourism has picked up has to be related.

Thanks for reading :)

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Kate April 15, 2012 at 10:12 pm

I can only imagine how amazing it would be to be so close to such enormous animals. It is too bad that tourism is having a negative impact on them (or not as Ryan points out above).

I love traveling but I sometimes hate the fact that I have to share my experiences with large groups of people. Like seeing the Mona Lisa – the people actually take over the experience. But that’s why I love off season travel – especially off season travel that is a few weeks before on season travel, tends to help.

Glad you got to experience something so amazing and that picture of the whale shark is awesome, so mysterious and beautiful!

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Poi Deeble-Rogers April 16, 2012 at 12:55 pm

It’s a tough one dealing with the crowds as unfortunately we as tourists are part of the problem we are complaining about haha

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Matthew Hutchins June 19, 2012 at 7:43 pm

Lovely creatures whale sharks, though it always makes me sad hearing about them as it reminds me of the ones I saw in Osaka, poor things kept dying due to inadequate conditions and had to be replaced every few years :(

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Carol H June 30, 2012 at 7:43 pm

I have now been fortunate enough to snorkel with them 3 times, twice in the Maldives on trips from Vilamendhoo Island and once in the Seychelles with their whale shark conservation people..I always go where they have rules on interaction and only allow so many people in the water at a time, it may be frustrating at times seeing others having a whaleshark encounter whilst you wait on the boat but when you get in and are not crowded by other snorkellers, then the experience is all the more magical……

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Poi July 2, 2012 at 6:10 pm

Sounds like you’ve been lucky and had some great experiences Carol. I would love to do it again but like you, I would probably search for a more personal and controlled experience.

Thanks for commenting.

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US Guy February 14, 2013 at 9:39 pm

share encounter:
Me and my wife booked whale shark sight seeing thru http://www.bicolaventura.com/contact-us/.. we were told the cost of the tour would be 1100 php per person for the entire tour since we would not require transportation to Donsol since we had our own car. On arrival we were told that since we were only two people we would need to put a deposit down for the entire capacity of the which is six tourist. Our tour guide told us that this would reserve us a spot that day since the government limits how many boats and people go out in one days time. The guide said that 6000 php would reserve us a boat and once other tourist arrived and we had four other tourist to join us we would recieve all but our 2200 php back. We were eventually joined by four other tourist and set out to see the whale shark. Upon returning to land and finding our tour guide to recieve our deposit back ee were only given 2600 php. When we asked for the rest we were told that was all there was. We then showed the TXT message we had recieved from the number on the website to the tour guide that stated 1100 php per person, he called his agent who told us that the 1100 php did not include the rental of the snorkel equipment and the enviromental fee and tourist fee. My wife explained to the lady on the phone that this was notbwhat we were told at which point the lady replied to my wife “tuff shit you did not understand” and hung up the phone. In short not only were we not given the rest of our money, now I alsohad to deal with a very angry wife on Valentines day. Best advice never use this agency and do not let any agency talk you into giving a deposit just wait till there is a group of six people. Also be forwarned that it is not guaranted you will see a whale shark, your tour will last for a maximium of 3 hous and there is no refund or raincheck.

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